We Pakistanis are quite good at doing exactly the opposite of what the rest of the world aims to do. Take, for instance, the case of education, in which school education has been commodified in a ruthless manner. Parents, even those from a relatively affluent class, took to the streets and protested vehemently against school fees which had shot through the roof. The government managed to placate them with cosmetic measures, which obviously have no long-term ramifications.
Fees were marginally reduced as a result of protests but the kitties of the school owners remained full as ever. In most cases if not all, it is the teaching staff who have had to bear the brunt of these cuts: annual increments were seized or else deductions were made from their salaries in order to meet the shortfall caused by the lowering of fees.
The government has remained insouciant regarding this matter of immense significance and has failed to come up with any long-term measures. It seems the government has completely absolved itself of the responsibility of providing quality education to children, irrespective of their class and status.
In such a situation, providing school education remains a lucrative business for private entrepreneurs, whereas state schools are in a shambles. Thus a space is created for madrasas to fill, with ominous consequences. Any policy of regulating madrasas is conspicuously absent which has made matters even worse.
Ironically, impervious to the watered-down state of school education, the government seems obsessed with opening universities. This aimless practice is followed doggedly, despite numerous constraints which are not hard to discern in the universities which already exist. This will come up later in this article: for now, let’s turn our gaze to school education in Western countries.
Most developed countries, even in this day and age when public spending is considered an act of utter imbecility, spend their resources on school education because it is the inalienable right of every citizen. The state is obliged to provide basic education to all and sundry. Denying anybody the fundamental right of basic education is literally inconceivable.
The example of Finland, a country not as rich as those existing in its neighbourhood like Sweden, can be put forth in this particular regard. Generally, the schooling system of Finland is considered to be the best in the whole world. The state is the sole basic education provider, as remarked by our Finnish friend and scholar, Dr. Katja Riikonen, who is currently visiting Pakistan. “No one is barred from getting school education just because he/she has no money,” she said.
She then shed light on the features of school education in her country. Two of them were very crucial. The system of education is the same throughout Finland. Every child, whether rich or poor, is entitled to the same education, which of course is a remarkable feat. Then the medium of instruction is the same for everyone. Kids start school when they are seven. The same sort of system of school education is in place in other Scandinavian countries too. However, university education in Finland and also in other places in Europe is fairly restricted.
The higher education has gradually been commoditised. Relatively few people go to the universities. Countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia have made it a business. Their universities attract students mostly from the post-colonial world and charge exorbitant fees in lieu of imparting them with instruction or training. All the major universities see these countries as their market and that is exactly how they approach the youth in the Asian and African countries.
Currently, all institutions of higher learning are doing all that they can to persuade and lure optimum number of students from China. It is largely because universities have to generate most of their funds themselves. And the fact is that a large number of students from China and other countries do come streaming in to get enrolled in these institutions to secure a better future for themselves.
All this is possible in the countries mentioned above primarily because the structure of university education is well thought-out and thoroughly institutionalised. More so, the universities of these countries are fortunate to have highly qualified faculty and are also equipped with resources with which the production of knowledge is facilitated.
Equally important is the fact that there is no interference from the state in the universities, apart from in exceptional cases. Similarly, the universities in developed countries forge lasting relationships with the industrial and service sectors, and provide them advisory services. All of this makes them financially viable. Many of these universities have huge endowment funds and they have invested their resources in profit-making ventures.
In Pakistan, the mushrooming universities present a pathetic scenario. How will they sustain themselves, with little academic reputation and minimal links with industry, which itself is quite fragile? The service sector and even the state itself prefer foreign consultants over home-spun academics. The only way to earn money is to conduct examinations and charge fees from the examinees. Baha ud Din Zakariya University Multan and the University of Sargodha have earned a reputation of leniency so that more students can be lured to take their exams with them. Those students having no chance of passing their exams anywhere else tend to gravitate to these universities.
Another lucrative business and a major source for earning huge sums is the opening of sub-campuses of universities in different cities, an exercise which has become quite scandalous. That was the reason the former Vice Chancellor of a University in Multan has been nabbed.
The existing universities are left without properly qualified faculty, which is the fundamental pre-condition for any university to have. In such a dismal scenario, the plight of newly established universities is not very hard to discern. At best, these newly established institutions will churn out scores of poorly educated young men and women with hardly any future prospects.
In the prevailing circumstances, our higher education needs drastic reforms, based on the premise that the government has an obligation to provide its people with basic education.